Holidays at Guantánamo Bay are exercises in strained normalcy. The festivities are uncanny, like a society trying to rebuild after an apocalyptic event. Holiday movies that are otherwise forgettable become reminders that the country is in a war without end. And the election of Donald Trump makes Christmas at Guantánamo Bay even more surreal, if such a thing were possible.
I watched Bad Santa 2 on a Monday night under a starry sky here in early December, as the Naval base geared up for Christmas. The opening scene shows Billy Bob Thornton’s character, Willie Soke, trying to commit suicide by sticking his head in the oven, only to realize that method is going to be too painful. He then attempts to hang himself but is saved when a faulty crossbeam collapses. It’s a tasteless joke in a loathsome movie, and in this setting it only serves as a reminder of the nine detainees who have died here. Seven of those deaths were suspected suicides.
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In January, the prison will celebrate its 15th anniversary. The brutal history of this place, and the torture that happened in prisons the US ran in Iraq, Afghanistan and at CIA black sites, is in danger of being forgotten — or worse, justified. Do the guards here know that in 2006, three detainees successfully hanged themselves? The detention camp commander at the time, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., said the suicides were “not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” Six years later, Adnan Latif, a Yemeni man detained without charge or trial, who had been ordered to be released by a federal judge (later overturned on an appeal brought by the Obama Department of Justice), had killed himself by overdosing on pills he’d hoarded.
My first reporting trip here, in October 2012, was just weeks after Latif had died, and the base was gearing up for another holiday: Halloween. A military-produced, base-wide newsletter called “The Wire” had a reminder for their upcoming annual Zombie 5K fun run, which took me by surprise. Even without Latif’s recent death, how had no one thought that an event called the zombie fun run might be in poor taste? (They still do it: this year, they were planning to use the hashtag #ApocalypseIsHere.)
The simple answer is that the Naval base operations — which date back more than a century, when Teddy Roosevelt signed a lease with the government of Cuba in 1903 — are separate from the detention center operations, and the base organized the zombie run. The more complicated answer is that anything can become normalized, given the right set of incentives. Trump’s current transgressions could very well become accepted norms in the space of eight years. Guantánamo Bay is living proof of that.
The first Bad Santa was released in November 2003 when Bush’s global “war on terror” was young. It would be two more years until Dana Priest, writing in The Washington Post in November 2005, broke the news that the CIA was running a secret prison system in at least eight countries. Three years after that, in November 2008, the United States citizenry voted resoundingly against Bush’s torture regime. Eight years later, the country voted for a man who has repeatedly pledged to resurrect torture as a policy, and to repopulate Guantánamo Bay with “some bad dudes.”
In 2016, the “war on terror” is no longer young. On the contrary, many observers have taken to calling it the “Forever War.” Things that were once strange — torturing somebody by simulating drowning — have become the stuff of jokes. Keeping Up With the Joneses, a comedy that played at Guantánamo later in the week, references waterboarding. In Washington, DC, the torture lobby is making a comeback. We are in uncharted territory, and the only thing that seems certain is things will get very bad in the coming years. To quote Thornton’s character in the third act of Bad Santa 2: “Welcome to the shit show.”
Still, all of that is incredibly distant from everyday life at Guantánamo, which sometimes feels like living through a tired metaphor about suburban life papering over deep, dark secrets. I didn’t get a chance to see the annual Christmas parade this year, though I did get a glimpse later that night of the island’s residents — members of the military, some of their families, Filipino and Jamaican contractors, among others — gathered around the Christmas tree outside the Naval Exchange, a Walmart-like one-stop shopping center, for a lighting ceremony.
Next to the Christmas tree outside the NEX, as it’s called, there is a small post with a beige phone attached to it, decorated as “Santa’s Hotline.” I was curious, so I picked up the receiver, not exactly sure what to expect. “Ho Ho Ho, this is Santa,” said a recorded voice on the other end. “I’ll be in Gitmo soon. Please be good!” I’ve learned it’s best not to try to predict what you will see or hear at Guantánamo Bay. Santa’s Hotline reinforced that principle.
On the first day of my week-long trip in Guantánamo, I explored the primary gift shop on the island. (There are several.) The standard fare was there, including a t-shirt that reads, “It Don’t Gitmo Better Than This.” The shop also had a few things I hadn’t seen before. One was a festive t-shirt celebrating the 2016 Christmas tree lighting. On the back it said, “Lite it up.” The other was a mug with a slogan you’d see in Key West but that becomes sinister in this context. “Relax,” the mug reads. “You’re on GTMO time.” Irony, like habeas corpus protections, is a scarce commodity here.
I noticed that Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas” was playing softly. “Someday all our dreams will come to be / Someday in a world where men are free,” Wonder sings. “Maybe not in time for you and me / But someday at Christmas time.”
There are currently 59 men detained at Guantánamo Bay, 21 of whom have been cleared for transfer. But 28 others are detained indefinitely, “forever prisoners” of the “forever war.”